Bikes and frames

Beginner:

The bike is the key ingredient of the sport of cycling, obviously.  But what kind of bike do you need?

Bikes come in many forms:  road, time-trial, mountain, trail, cyclocross, comfort, cruiser, hybrid and racing, to name only a few.  For the purposes of this site, we’ll concentrate on road bikes only.  These are the skinny-tire variety that we used to call “10-speeds” when I was growing up (now they’re usually 20 speeds or more, but that’s another topic).  Road bikes come in a variety of subcategories – enthusiast, plush, racing and time-trial or “TT”, for example.  If you’re just getting into cycling, though, you just need a basic road bike.  For now, don’t get caught up in the details of frame material, geometry, stiffness, weight, etc.  The most important things by far are fit and comfort.  Find a bike that feels good to you and is properly fitted by a professional.  (Yes, good shops will have someone trained in fitting.  If not, search one out.)  Although the advertising hype may contradict it, the technical details of the bike really won’t matter at this stage.  (Frankly, they don’t really matter that much unless you’re nearly pro-level!)

Road bikes generally come in frame sizes measured in centimeters (cm), as opposed to mountain bikes, which are measured in inches (in) for some reason.  In the old 10-speed days this was the exact measurement of the center of the top tube (the thing you have to step over) to the center of the bottom bracket (the axis that your pedals spin around).  Now days, however, bikes have such weird geometries, that this is often just an approximation of size.  So, although usually you’ll see bike sizes described in “cm” (you’ll quickly discover what size you need – usually somewhere in the range of 50 to 60 cm), frequently they just come in “Small” “Medium” and “Large” (or, in my case, “Extra Large”!)  Don’t get hung up on finding a specific size (“I MUST have a 53 cm frame!”) – just find one that’s about the right size and see if it fits.  There are many adjustments that can be made, so consult the fitting expert to make sure it’s the right size.  (See the figure below for a diagram of the standard frame measurement – the frame size is the “center to center” measurement shown in the figure.)  (Image stolen from www.thebikeandmore.blogspot.com)

I’m 6′ 4″, so I need a 61-63 cm frame in traditional geometry bikes.  But the bike I ride currently has a “compact frame” geometry, so it really only measures about 58 cm per the diagram above.  Basically this just means the seat looks a bit higher than the old-school frames, and the top tube slope upward, instead of being horizontal, as in the diagram above.  The size I bought was “XL”, which roughly equates to a 60 cm frame.  A tad small for me, actually, but I have long legs and a short torso, so it works out perfectly.  The shorter top tube lenght of the smaller frame fits my shorter torso just fine.  You should consider factoring in your long/short legs/torso accordingly. (See the photo below for a side view of my bike.)

Intermediate:

If you’re past the beginning bike or, like me, you just want to jump in with both feet, then you’ll need to learn a bit more about frame types and materials, as well as gruppos, wheels, etc.  I’ll concentrate on frames here – please see the related links for the other bike parts.

Generally bikes come with frames made from 3 or 4 materials:  steel, aluminum, carbon fiber or titanium.  Some bikes even have a combination of two materials.  (My buddy, for example, rides an aluminum bike with a carbon fiber fork.  His son’s frame is aluminum in the front and carbon fiber in the back!)  In general, when you start to get into a more “serious” bike (i.e. over $2000), you’ll get more and more carbon fiber.  In fact, just about all bikes that are ~$2500 and up these days have frames and forks made of 100% carbon fiber.  The old “steel is real” guys might argue that this is unnecessary, but it’s definitely the current trend.  And it definitely makes for some light bikes!  It’s not unusual to see a complete, high-end bike weighing under 14 lbs these days!

The only problem with making everything out of lightweight carbon fiber is the ride quality.  Generally the low-end of the all carbon bikes will sacrifice ride quality and/or stiffness in the name of just having carbon fiber.  So, you should be careful – sometimes it’s better to have a slightly heavier frame that rides nicer, rather than owning the bragging rights of an all-carbon bike!  When you move up in quality, the frame is more carefully designed and generally uses higher quality carbon fiber.  Bikes at the top end start to diverge into “plush” or “enthusiast” frames that offer more comfort at the sacrifice of overall stiffness and “racing” frames that are as light and stiff as possible.  At the very top end these qualities start to merge together again and the very best bikes are both stiff and have a nice ride quality.

The best advise is to try before you buy if possible.  Just like cars, different bikes have different ride qualities.  While you may not be able to tell much of a difference between all-carbon bike A and all-carbon bike B (contrary to what the advertising hype may have you believe!), you will certainly be able to tell the difference between aluminum bike A and all-carbon bike A!  Plus, the basic geometries of the two bikes may be significantly different.  One may have a more relaxed, upright riding position, while the other one may be designed with a bent-over stance for the hard-core racer.  (Again, much of this can be adjusted and tweaked with seat height and angle, as well as stem length and angle, so don’t get too wrapped up in the subtle details.  But if a bike feels way off from the get-go, it’s probably not the right choice…)

In the end you should buy something that feels comfortable initially, and then have it professionally fitted to you.  I went with an all-carbon Italian model, mostly because I liked the looks, as well as the idea of owning a really nice bike.  I’ll be the first one to admit, however, that it doesn’t make me any faster!  (Although it does make the fast guys wonder why the guy on the nice bike is moving so slowly as they pass me on a hill!)

For more on buying a bike, please see this link for information on gruppos (gears, shifters, cranks, chains, etc)…

3 thoughts on “Bikes and frames

  1. My wife has recently shown an interest in buying a ‘serious’ bike. We’ve both managed our occasional cycle trips with basic Raleigh Hybrids bought years ago but she seems keen on upgrading to a better one as part of her (post-op) return to fitness drive. She swims and runs too.
    We’d like some advice. Your great article above is helpful but I can’t decide on the benefits of buying new from a very enthusiastic young salesman who will ‘professionally fit it’ to her – not to mention aftercare/maintainance etc with my friends advice that a much better deal can be had with the second hand market.
    We’ve looked at Urban Hybrids like the Whyte Victoria and Whyte Carnaby as she doesn’t think she’ll like drop bars. Any advice would be welcome. Thanks.

    • Hi Peter,

      Sorry for the slow reply. Maybe you’ve already made a decision, but I’ll give you my $.02 anyway, since it’s an excellent question…

      I’m a firm believer in getting the best value for your money, especially with a large purchase like a bike. Therefore buying used is an excellent idea. You can get a used bike professionally fitted just like a new one, of course. You just have to pay extra for that service (which I highly recommend, by the way), so it should be factored in to the purchase price. …That said, however, be careful on the age and mileage of a used bike. Just like used cars, things tend to wear out (tires, chains, cables – even gears), so refurbishment costs should be factored in as well. …Look for new as well. Often you can find deals on last years’ models, which start happening around this time of year.

      As for flat vs. drop bars, that’s a whole other discussion. It all depends on how serious you want to get and how far you want to ride. If the rides start getting much longer than about 15-20 miles (~25-30km), the increased efficiency and reduction in weight associated with drop bar bikes makes them a much better choice. (It’s typically more than just the bars that changes!). See if you can try a few things out before you buy. (Another benefit of a new dealer). Comfort should be high on the list of deciding factors. If you’re not comfortable, you won’t ride!

      I hope that helps. Reply back if there are follow up questions!

      Cody

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